Pitching prospects in the Cubs organization have become somewhat legendary creatures over the past few years. After the Cubs traded Chris Archer, only to watch Trey McNutt fade in Double A, the general thinking seem to be that pitching prospects were extinct in the Cubs system. Of course, sometimes rumors of extinction prove to be premature.
To put it simply, there are a lot of right-handed pitching prospects in this organization that have major league potential. There are not a lot with star potential – at least with obvious star potential anyway – but the sheer volume of prospects creates a good foundation. If the Cubs can acquire a pitcher or two via trade or the draft, and if one or two of the current mob breaks out, suddenly the Cubs could be in possession of a nice stash of high quality pitching talent. There are a lot of ifs in that sentence, but considering that the Cubs have done quite well trading for pitchers over the past two seasons, and have focused on drafting pitching outside of the first round, those parts of the equation do not seem unlikely. Breakouts are harder to project, but in a way they are like lottery tickets. The best way to increase your odds is to buy a lot of tickets, and the Cubs have a lot of breakout potential pitchers hanging out in the minors now.
I am not going to be able to cover all the Cubs right-handed pitching worth monitoring in this article. I’ll hit many of them, with a focus on the starters, but there will be some I omit just to keep this article from rivaling a Russian novel in length.
We’ll start things off with some of the youngest pitchers to make it higher than the Arizona Rookie League during the 2013 season. Duane Underwood, who will turn 20 in July (and who is hopefully healthy), made 11 starts for Boise and produced the results we’d expect from a teenager playing in a league with a lot of former collegiate hitters. He walked too many, didn’t strike out enough, and gave up a few too many hits. He got progressively better as the season went, though, and as one of the youngest pitchers in the league that in-season improvement is notable. He needs to refine his control and cut back on the walks, but Underwood has quite a bit of upside.
As does Paul Blackburn. Blackburn, who turned 20 in December, also spent most of the season in the Boise rotation, and his results were similar to Underwood’s. I suspect both of these pitchers will head to Kane County to start the 2014 season.
Corbin Hoffner is one of the taller pitchers in the system, and even though he pitched exclusively in relief for the Hawks, the lengths of his stints makes me suspect he was a piggyback guy who may yet be groomed as a starter. Unlike his fellow 2012 draftees Blackburn and Underwood, though, Hoffner dominated Northwest League to the tune of 1.74 ERA and a K/BB ratio of 3.23. He should also report to a full season team this spring.
James Pugliese, of the 2011 draft, is not a name you hear a lot about. Last season with Boise he threw strikes and did not give up a lot of walks. He got rocked in a short stint with Kane County, but he should return to that level this season.
Erick Leal did not make it out of Arizona last season, but while with the AZL Cubs he struck out 9.6 per nine innings and compiled an impressive K/BB ratio of 6.50. He just turned 19 this March, and I suspect he will be one of the youngest pitchers in the league when Boise starts up play later this summer.
Daury Torrez belongs on this list somewhere. He reached Kane County at the age of 20 (he turns 21 in June), if only for five innings, but the numbers from his Arizona campaign last season are impressive. He struck out 49 in 49 innings, and walked just 5 (and one of those was intentional). He also gave up 49 hits. His favorite number? I’m guessing it’s 49. He will likely report to either Kane County or Boise for the 2014 season.
Reaching back to the 2010 draft we find Ben Wells. Even though he has been pitching in the Cubs organization for three seasons now, Wells just turned 21 last summer. He was not overpowering in Daytona last season, but he did not give up a lot of hits, either. I think he still projects as a back of the rotation guy, and he will likely be one of the younger pitchers in Double A should he report there to start the 2014 season.
At this stage Tayler Scott is probably more famous for being from South Africa than for his results on the diamond, but he has enough upside to stay on our radar. He’ll need to cut back on the walks to have any success above A ball, and could return for a second trip through the Midwest League this summer.
Trey Masek, Scott Frazier, and Tyler Skulina were all taken in the 2013 draft by the Cubs, and I suspect all three will open the year in Kane County. All three were well-regarded at the time of the draft, and while the early looks make me think Frazier is ticketed for the bullpen, all three are likely to get plenty of chances to claim a starting job. They were taken from college, so the potential exists for them to move fairly quickly once they get established. Finishing the season in Daytona for any or all of the trio would not be surprising.
Although he did not make quite the splash that other members of the Daytona pitching staff did last season, Yao-Lin Wang finished with a K/BB ratio of 2.21 and allowed just 4 home runs in his 71 innings of work. Though he pitched both as a starter and out of the pen, his final two appearances of 2013 were both as a starter, and in those games he combined for seven shutout innings. I think he will move to Tennessee, probably as a reliever, but I think the Cubs try to get him 100+ innings regardless.
Matt Loosen split his season between Tennessee and Daytona, and then went on to pitch pretty well in the Arizona Fall League. He was old for High A (age 24), and he’ll be on the old side for Double A when returns there this season, but when he is consistently throwing strikes he can be very effective, as his July no hitter demonstrated. His late season trip to Double A went much better than his early season stint, and he’ll likely have a chance to build on that success this spring.
Two members of the 2013 Tennessee bullpen to keep an eye on going forward are Frank Batista and Tony Zych. Batista has racked up 43 Double A saves over the past two seasons, and has 74 for his minor league career. I’m not sure he has closer stuff long term, but I like his chances to stick in a bullpen. Tony Zych, who also made a brief major league appearance last fall, has more conventional closer stuff. He significant reworked his delivery between 2012 and 2013 and lost a lot of the jerkiness that he was known for coming out of college, and while his K/9 numbers fell off quite a bit, his overall effectiveness improved markedly. He should join Batista in the Iowa bullpen this summer. I would not be surprised if his strikeouts start to return as he becomes more comfortable in his new pitching motion.
Kyle Hendricks cruised through Double A, went to Iowa, and cruised some more. He does not strike out a lot of guys, but, even in the hitter friendly Pacific Coast League, batters have a very had time making clean and consistent contact off him. He gives up few walks, few hits, and very few home runs by pounding the bottom of the strike zone and using his impressive command to attack most hitters on both corners. What he lacks in raw stuff he makes up for to a great degree in game planning and understanding how to get hitters out. At worst he should do well in the back of a major league rotation, likely starting sometime this year.
And coming along just behind him, likely all hitting the Double A rotation at once this spring, is that FSL Championship rotation of C.J. Edwards, Pierce Johnson, Corey Black, and Ivan Pineyro. The first two on that list are Top 100 prospects, with Edwards appearing on some Top 50 lists and being credited in some corners with true front of the rotation status. Johnson is not far behind him. Black, due to his height, is seen by some as a reliever, but I suspect the Cubs will give him every chance to stick in the rotation. He blossomed with Cubs after being sent over in a trade and continued to maintain his hard stuff into the playoffs. Also blossoming post trade was Ivan Pineyro. After being dealt from Washington his K/BB ratio jumped from 1.60 to 4.22.
There is a lot of upside in that quartet of hurlers. You can convince yourself (with some backing from national prospect analysts) that they have major league potential as a No. 2, a No. 3, another No. 3, and a No. 4. A more skeptical analyst might say two back of the rotation starters, a set up man, and a middle reliever, but few would argue that all four have major league potential. Combined with Hendricks, Eric Jokisch (discussed in the left-handed pitching article), and the under-appreciated Neil Ramirez (who had a Double A season nearly as good as Hendricks did), this group represents the Cubs first sizeable wave of notable pitching talent to reach the upper minors in quite some time.
You could fit Arodys Vizcaino in here, too, but, given his unique story and proximity to the big leagues, he’s kind of in his own class at this point. Obviously he’s already been discussed a great deal this year throughout Spring Training.
And even after that swift pass through the farm system, there are several names I have not yet discussed, including interesting prospects such as Dillon Maples, Jasvir Rakkar, Felix Pena, Lendy Castillo, Kevin Rhoderick, Juan Paniagua, Armando Rivero, Zach Cates, Carlos Pimentel, Dallas Beeler, and more. The myth may be that the Cubs are lacking in pitching prospects, but the reality is actually that the Cubs are loaded with potential. Just as Edwards and Hendricks broke out this season, I suspect next season we will see two or three more pitchers move their prospect stock up significantly. The Cubs enter this season with two league Top 100 pitching prospects, and I would not be surprised if they finish the season with more than that. Factor in the returns of another summer of trades, and it is not impossible that right-handed pitching could be a strength of this organization by the end of the summer.
One final name to watch, one that has been in the headlines a bit lately, is Jen-Ho Tseng. It is still a little early to be certain what the Cubs have in this guy, but the early returns are very good. When Baseball Prospectus and Baseball America watched him pitch recently, all their analysts came away very impressed with the quality of his pitches. And after watching this video it is easy to see why. For now I would pencil Tseng’s name in with Black and Ramirez a notch below Edwards and Johnson, but keep that pencil handy. After a year under the tutelage of minor league pitching coordinator Derek Johnson, Tseng could be the next guy to see his stock take a jump.
If you only keep track of one minor league story this summer, apart from the Baez and Bryant Home Run Show, that is, make it the developing pitchers. It looks like it could be a very fun story to watch.